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Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

Russell Banks isn’t known for writing happy, uplifting stories: The Sweet Hereafter, for example, is about the aftermath of a school bus accident with multiple child fatalities. His characters usually are gritty, working class, and often violent. In his latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, he takes an unsympathetic character and forces us to empathize with him, or, failing that, understand how he got to be who he is.

The Kid is a convicted sex offender, or that’s what we’re told about him at first. In his early 20s, discharged from the Army, and addicted to Internet porn, he’s low on the likability scale. He buses tables and camps out under a Florida causeway with other societal rejects. Gradually we learn that this is his only option. As a sex offender, he violates parole if he’s within 2500 feet of anywhere there might be children — this includes homeless shelters and most apartments he can afford — but can’t leave the area. His disinterested mother wants nothing to do with him; he wears a GPS anklet that keeps the justice system aware of his whereabouts. To fulfill his parole, the outcast camp under the causeway is his only option.

Gradually we learn how he’s arrived at this low spot. Without giving away too much of the plot, his conviction is based as much on his complete isolation and inexperience with other people as it is on an actual crime. He’s not innocent, but he’s not as guilty as this banishment from society might indicate.

Banks doesn’t make the Kid into a saint, or a blameless victim. But he does evoke our sympathy. When he’s taken in by the Professor, a morbidly obese man of ambiguous motives, we hope he’s not being exploited. To say that both of these main characters are unique is an extreme understatement; I’ve never encountered anyone like either of them in anything I’ve read, and they stayed with me long after I finished the book. The moral issues are huge and seemingly insoluble, the setting is intensely well-drawn, and the Kid is one of the best antiheroes I’ve ever met.

author photo: Nancie Battaglia